To Source or Distill: How Whiskey Brands are Shifting Their Production Models

If you follow the whiskey nerds on Twitter, you will find a variety of opinions about WhistlePig Whiskey, ranging from fanboy enthusiasm to downright hostility. The Vermont distillery has, until recently, strictly been a NDP (non-distilling producer), sourcing its aged rye whiskey from Indiana’s MGP and Canada’s ADL distilleries. This is common practice — it takes years to distill and age quality whiskey, so a new distillery will often source its liquid so it has something to sell in the meantime. But the goal for WhistlePig has always been to become a farm-to-bottle distillery — growing grain, distilling, and bottling all on the bucolic Vermont farm it calls home. The rye whiskey that's branded under the WhistlePig name is very good, coming in expressions ranging from 10 to 15 years, as well as limited edition releases that fall under its Boss Hog label. It’s not cheap, either, with the 10-year-old starting at around $70. The intention is to be a premium whiskey, not a cheap cocktail mixer.

So why do the accolades come with some online vitriol? Much of it has something to do with the personality of founder and “chief steward of the brand,” Raj Bhakta. Even his own staff admits he has a somewhat volatile personality. Last year, he was embroiled in some controversy after being forced out of the company he founded by several board members who accused him of fraud and other improprieties. Bhakta responded with a lawsuit, which was recently settled, and he remains on the board.

Bhakta is no stranger to the public eye, having run as a Republican to represent Pennsylvania’s 13th district in 2006 (he lost), and appearing on The Apprentice in 2004 (Trump fired him in the ninth week). The name “WhistlePig” comes from an incident about a decade ago when Bhakta was going for a hike in Colorado. A biker barreling down the slope surprised him, then stopped and shouted, “Could it be a whistle pig?” in a French accent. Or so the tale goes.

Whiskey geeks have, in the past, accused the brand of not being totally transparent about where the juice actually comes from, although that seems to have changed. On a recent visit, the staff did not shy away from talking about where the whiskey is sourced. This spring, however, WhistlePig is set to release FarmStock, a brand-new expression featuring juice actually distilled on the farm. The first batch is composed of one-year-old rye whiskey distilled at WhistlePig (20 percent), five-year-old straight rye from MGP (31 percent), and 12-year-old straight rye from ADL (49 percent). The whiskey distilled at WhistlePig is aged in Vermont white oak barrels that are custom toasted and charred according to the company’s own specifications. It’s the first taste of WhistlePig’s “triple terroir,” according to Bhakta, meaning whiskey made with grain, water, and wood from the farm.

WhistlePig’s goal is to release a new batch each year, moving closer to a product that is 100 percent farm-distilled whiskey as it nears the 10-year age statement of the brand’s flagship expression. So it’ll be some time before the sourced whiskey is phased out, if it ever is completely. It’s too early to speculate, according to operations manager Connor Burleigh. “We have really great liquid in the 10-year,” he says, “and the fact that we were able to find that whiskey when we did was sort of a miracle… That’s what we built our brand on, so I would hesitate to say we would ever get away from [that]. That being said, we do wanna bring everything in-house.”

So how does FarmStock taste? It’s good, recognizably WhistlePig, although you can definitely taste the young whiskey in the mix. “If it were a person,” says Bhakta, “it would have the youth of a 20-year-old and the wisdom of an 80-year-old. It’s got the vibrancy and power of a young whiskey, the depth of the middle-aged whiskey, and the rich taste of the 12-year-old.” There are only a few thousand barrels of it, so it will be a limited release, hitting Vermont, New York, California, and Illinois. “This company is inextricably tied to the land and the area that we’re based in,” says Burleigh. “So as we start to bring the output of our farm to our consumers, that’s something people will find extremely meaningful. Turning this land from hayfields into a nationwide business… it’s hard to understate how meaningful that is to those of us who have worked on it.”

WhistlePig isn’t the only whiskey brand trying to make the jump from NDP to working distillery. Templeton Rye, which was involved in a lawsuit dealing with transparency issues, will break ground on a new distillery this April. Templeton currently sources its rye from MGP and expects its Iowa-distilled whiskey to be available around 2022. “Obviously, there is significant complexity in constructing a state-of-the-art distillery,” says co-founder Keith Kerkhoff, “not to mention the craftsmanship and artistry that go into distilling and aging Templeton Rye.” He expects the Templeton-distilled whiskey to taste very similar to what they’ve been selling, because it’s based on a proprietary recipe the company will continue to use. “We will ramp up production as soon as distillery construction is complete… It’s going to be six years before we have that first drop, but we’d like to invite all our customers to come back and join us that day when we have that first barrel of whiskey.”

Barrell Bourbon is another brand making some moves toward distilling its own juice. A new distillery is set to begin construction this spring in an industrial area in greater Louisville, with Tripp Stimson, formerly of Kentucky Artisan Distillery and Brown-Forman, as master distiller. Founder Joe Beatrice says that the brand has always been transparent about sourcing. “The idea to pretend works for some, but not for those who we want to talk to.” The plan is to produce about 1,000 barrels the first year, and the whiskey from the distillery will probably be kept separate from the sourced instead of being vatted together as WhistlePig is doing. But Beatrice is keeping an open mind. “If we have something that would make [the whiskey] better, we’d use it,” he says.

Utah’s High West distillery, recently acquired by Constellation Brands, has been both sourcing and distilling since 2008. Brendan Coyle, the master distiller, says that High West’s craft is in its blends, so the company will continue to complement its sourced whisky with its own distillate — particularly in its very well-received rye blends. “Transparency is very important,” says Coyle. “We have always discussed where our products are sourced from. In the end, we do not want to deceive the consumer.”

Across the pond, Ireland’s Teeling Whiskey Co. made the first move from sourcing to distilling in 2015 when it fired up its Dublin stills. Right now, according to founder and managing director Jack Teeling, the distillery is producing single-pot still and single-malt whiskey, along with smaller amounts of peated single-malt. “Building our new distillery was never the destination; we are still only at the start of a long journey,” he says. “This industry is definitely not a sprint, but more like a marathon, so we will continue to do what we believe to be the right things and hopefully help with the evolution of Irish whiskey.”